Know Disability Laws: Reduce Your Anxiety When Your Student on the Spectrum Transitions to College

Watching your young adult get ready to go to college, whether it’s the local community college or a far-off, four-year institution, is often a bittersweet time for parents. If your young adult struggles with disruption to their routine or is used to having your immediate guidance and input regarding what’s best for their education, the changes to your role that come when they start college may be downright intimidating. At the same time, you may be looking forward to the opportunities for increased self-efficacy for your young adult that comes with such transitions—and the increased sense of confidence that often accompanies it.

While it’s practical and useful to focus on the actions that both students and parents can take to help the transition from high school to college or post-secondary educational opportunities (check out our timelines here and here), examining how privacy and disability laws function at the collegiate level may also help you re-conceptualize your role from primary to secondary player in your student’s education.

Know Privacy Laws

Parents have unlimited access to their high school student’s academic records. But in college, a federal privacy law called Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) puts class records under lock and key. “It’s ironclad,” says Lorraine Wolf, director of disability services at Boston University and author, with Jane Thierfeld Brown and G. Ruth Kukiela Bork, of Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel. “I will not have a substantive conversation with a parent without the student present.”

Colleges have different procedures to grant parents access to privacy-protected information. Some, like Boston University, don’t allow students to waive their FERPA rights at all. Others will do so with a notarized form or even a digital signature. It’s a good idea to ask early about the policy at your student’s chosen college, and to think carefully about the consequences of having access to privacy-protected information, for both you and your student.

But, Wolf adds, the FERPA boundaries “set the right tone” for this new stage in the relationship between parents and students. “Adults don’t have their parents involved in every decision of their life. The student has their own civil rights, and one of those rights is the right to privacy.”

Know Disability Laws

There are two more laws that parents and students should keep in mind: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which covers K-12 education, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers college education (and everything else). The IDEA is an entitlement model, says Wolf, which guarantees that schools offer every accommodation necessary to a student’s success. But the ADA is a civil rights model, which means equal access, but not guaranteed success. “You can’t fail out of special education,” says Jane Thierfeld Brown at College Autism Spectrum, “but there’s no special education in college. There are only reasonable accommodations.”

Uncertain as this time of transition might be, it’s also an amazing opportunity for you and your student to grow in new roles. It’s important that colleges and other educational institutions work from the premise of “reasonable accommodations” rather than guaranteed success. It helps students learn to advocate for themselves, develop self-sufficiency, and prepare for the environments they’ll encounter after they graduate. In other word, it provides opportunities for young adults to reach their full potential. Yes, sometimes they’ll fail, but we all do. And as any teacher will tell you, some of the best students they’ve had are ones who struggled the first time around, and then came back to try again. Success can mean getting it right the first time, but it can also mean having the confidence and determination to try again. So, let these laws help guide your approach and expectations for your student’s collegiate experience. You may find that what seems frightening is actually an incredible opportunity for your student’s growth and development.

Are you a parent struggling with this transition? Let us know what’s helped, and how you’ve used these laws to help negotiate new roles for you and your family.

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Kate Becker is a science writer in Brookline, Massachusetts. She studied physics and astronomy and was previously senior researcher for the science documentary series NOVA. Contact her at http://www.spacecrafty.com/

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